Challenges galore for Solberg & Co

Norwegians woke up to big headlines and numerous changes in the make-up of Parliament on Tuesday, but with Prime Minister Erna Solberg poised for a second term of leading Norway’s government. As she thanked voters for their confidence in her leadership, Solberg faces huge challenges in the areas of climate, the EU, defense, social differences and reform efforts, along with the immediate task of forming a new coalition and then keeping it together.

Norway’s two biggest tabloid newspapers noted how “Norway held its breath” (VG, at left) during a close race, and that Labour faced a fiasco while Erna Solberg’s Conservatives landed a bittersweet victory. The paper at right (Dagbladet) claims Solberg is left with a weaker government coalition, less oil money to work with and more quarreling. Now the real work begins. FACSIMILE: newsinenglish.no

Solberg could heave a sigh of relief after her Conservatives and the Progress Party maintained most of the voter support that swept them into government four years ago. When the votes were finally and officially tallied Tuesday afternoon, the Conservatives held 25.1 percent of the vote and 45 seats in Parliament, while Finance Minister Siv Jensen’s Progress Party had 15.3 percent and 28 seats.

The two parties that supported them during the last parliamentary session, the Christian Democrats and Liberals, didn’t do as well but well enough to form a non-socialist majority. The Christian Democrats ended up with 4.2 percent and eight seats and the Liberals with 4.3 and also eight seats.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande said she’d now like to join a government coalition formed by Solberg and is willing to cooperate with the Progress Party after all. That’s a change from her pre-election criticism of Progress and refusal to enter into a new, binding agreement to support a government including Progress for another four years.

“We’re the ones who made this possible during the night,” Grande told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) as she accepted flowers from her deputy Terje Breivik and started looking ahead. She was referring to how her party’s election result was large enough to give them extra seats in Parliament and help the Conservatives and Progress win government power. All four non-socialist parties lost voters, so their majority is slimmer than it was after the last election, but it’s bigger than what all five left-wing parties won.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (far left) needs to get cooperation from the three parties led by these colleagues: Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide and Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande. They gathered here after midnight on Monday, to talk about what’s next after the election. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, have flatly refused to either join or formally support a government that includes the Progress Party, Norway’s most right-wing. Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide was holding fast to that position, but at the same time he and his party want Solberg to be prime minister. They’ve thus said they won’t topple a government led by Solberg, but their support will be based on issue by issue. Hareide, after delivering his party’s worst election result in years, will also be under pressure to promote Christian Democrats’ positions on issues in hopes of rebuilding their stature.

It all means that Solberg’s new government will be more vulnerable and subject to the desires of not only Grande and Hareide but also reinvigorated forces on the left side. Even though Labour lost badly, its two potential government partners (the Socialist Left and the Center Party) did well and are also bound to push their policies and add to the pressure on Solberg. Socialist Left (SV) leader Audun Lysbakken went so far as to announce that he’s ready to topple her government at the earliest opportunity.

Ruling issue by issue
The success of Solberg’s new coalition will thus likely lurch from issue to issue and there are many tough ones as well. Topping the list is climate change and how Norway can live up to its commitments to halt it. Pressure is now seriously rising to curtail the country’s lucrative oil and gas industry, to cut carbon emissions, but that’s a dilemma for Solberg who wants to maintain its economic contribution. She’ll be under pressure to restrict more oil exploration, protect the waters off Lofoten from it, and more heavily tax carbon emitters.

Her government will also need to deal with the effects of Britain leaving the EU, and how that will affect Norway’s agreement with the EU (through the EEA/EØS pact) over access to its inner market. Solberg’s current ministers have been following the issue closely and now will continue to do so.

Defense issues and Norway’s role in NATO will also be at the forefront. The country’s domestic security, tensions with neighbouring Russia and Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan, Syria and other NATO projects outside Europe will spark debate. Nearly all the parties in Parliament, however, are proud of Norway’s membership in NATO and are likely to remain as loyal as possible.

Bracing for assault
Solberg’s new government will also be under assault from opposition parties like Labour and SV to resolve social differences within Norway itself. Despite its vast social welfare system, Norway has residents living in relative poverty including families with children and singles on disability or otherwise unable to find work. SV has vowed to be especially tough in this area, with Labour also expected to demand an end to social dumping and workplace exploitation.

Waiting in the wings with challenges and confrontation will be the Center Party, which doubled its voter support and representation in Parliament on the back of an uproar in rural districts over wolves, hospital closures, municipal mergers and other reforms. Solberg and her government have claimed the reforms and consolidation of services are necessary to modernize operations and cut costs. More battles lie ahead.

Solberg herself was predictably optimistic the day after the election, viewing its results as a mandate that a majority of Norwegians want her to stay the course staked out four years ago.

“Being re-elected means that the politics in place have received a stamp of approval by the voters,” Solberg told reporters at an early afternoon press conference. “The politics we’ve used work, and the voters want more of them. The voters think we have delivered results. I think they thought things over during the summer and viewed the government as the secure alternative in Norwegian politics. We can’t underestimate the views that we have delivered results and won confidence.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund